Voice

The Strategy Killer

Rising global violence threatens more than humanity's collective conscience. In 2014, America should seize two critical opportunities to address it.

The White House and State Department are hard at work on two major new documents that will lay the foundation for America's national security policy for the remainder of the Obama administration and possibly beyond: the National Security Strategy, rumored for release this summer, and the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), slated for release later this year. The usual bureaucratic tussles will ensue about what should and should not be included in these documents, and the administration will inevitably struggle to determine priorities amid the unenviable palette of challenges and paucity of big opportunities.

One challenge, however, looms larger than the rest, and addressing it should be a centerpiece of these forthcoming strategy documents: the growing threat posed by global violence and the urgency of preventing violent conflict before it escalates. Prioritizing these challenges is necessary because violent conflict threatens to derail progress on a host of other issues critical to U.S. national interests and values. And doing so will also encourage U.S. government agencies to develop more effective strategies and techniques for reducing violence.

Rising global violence is the challenge of our time. Serious conflicts now stretch across swaths of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, and they hold the potential to spread. Meanwhile, tensions are rising in the South China Sea, Burma, Ukraine, and elsewhere. In most of these circumstances, the influence of international institutions is limited. The options available to U.S. policymakers are lousy.

This rise in violence across the globe is not the challenge expected at this juncture. For many, the end of the Cold War also ended the risk of war between great powers. The decade that followed saw negotiated peace agreements end lengthy -- and seemingly intractable -- civil wars. Rwanda began rebuilding after a horrible genocide, and wars in the Balkans concluded. More than a decade later, a newly elected President Barack Obama pledged to wind down the new era of conflict inaugurated by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, NATO began to draw down its forces in Afghanistan, and conversations about how to cut the U.S. defense budget commenced.

Yet violent conflict is now resurging, whether we like it or not.

The growing scale and scope of the violence shocks both the heart and the conscience. It also harms American interests. Indeed, these conflicts now threaten every major element of America's foreign policy, whether it's economic growth or energy security, human development or human rights, counterterrorism or illicit trafficking, environmental conservation or global health. It is a challenge U.S. policymakers cannot view separately from their other agendas, since violence is likely to prevent -- or even destroy -- any progress.

The most stunning example of resurging violence is the civil war in Syria, which has already killed more than 150,000 people -- including an estimated 50,000 civilians -- displaced 6.5 million people from their homes, and sent 2.6 million to neighboring countries. Syria's GDP has dropped 40 percent since 2010, and estimates suggest that 40 percent of the country's housing infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed. An estimated 5,000 to 10,0000 foreign fighters have entered Syria, most of them to support radical Islamist groups. There is now the risk that they will return to their home countries both more radicalized and more experienced in combat. The violence in Syria has also contributed to the destabilization of neighboring Iraq, where more than 2,200 Iraqi civilians have been killed by violence in 2014 alone and Iraq's central government is still struggling to regain control of Fallujah, where just 10 years ago, U.S. Marines fought their bloodiest battle in decades.

The long-term costs of the Syrian conflict are also staggering. The United Nations estimates that 3 million children have dropped out of school since the onset of the crisis, leading Syria's opposition president, Ahmad Jarba, to fear a generation of uneducated children who know only the language of violence and power. Polio has re-emerged as a risk, particularly in the most violent areas of Syria, where unrest is hindering vaccination campaigns.

Away from Syria, the threat of war between states has ominously re-emerged, too. Armed Russian troops stoked the crisis in Ukraine and reintroduced Europe to the prospect of war, while tensions between Japan and China, and China and Vietnam raise fears of a major-power conflict in Asia. While that threat is not yet imminent, the options to prevent its emergence -- such as restraint based on tacit agreement of red lines, dialogue, no-fly zones, communication to prevent miscalculation, and negotiation -- are easier and more numerous now, before tensions escalate further. In other words, there is no time to waste.

And violence, it is important to remember, comes not just from conflict. As expertly captured in the new book The Locust Effect by Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros, violence stemming from broken systems may be the most significant obstacle to confronting extreme poverty. The failure of justice systems and security and police forces to shield poor communities from forced labor, theft, illegal detention, rape, and other abuses keeps millions in poverty who would otherwise find their own way out. And as Haugen and Boutros show, it is an issue that development agencies overwhelmingly fail to address.

But remembering the many causes and locations of violence is only a first step toward ending it. Also critical is breaking current modes of thought and action that are hindering us.

Those in the national security community, for instance, must recognize more forthrightly the limits of force and invest in the long-term task of building peace. This entails not just the high politics of diplomacy, but also grassroots efforts to build political constituencies for peace. We need stronger and more effective instruments of nonviolent power, such as diplomacy, mediation, conflict resolution, nonviolent civic mobilization, and public engagement through media and national dialogue, and we need to share them broadly with those in positions to mitigate violent conflicts. The National Security Strategy and QDDR can advance this agenda by treating these instruments seriously and laying the foundation for more detailed plans to employ them, both at the strategic level and in relation to particular issues and conflicts.

Those in the peace-building and conflict-resolution communities should also admit more forthrightly that force may have a role. Some dictators are simply too ruthless to come to the negotiating table if they think they are winning militarily. A positive peace, one that includes reconciliation and justice, not just a cessation of violence, is not possible in the midst of hostilities. Often, what is first required is the legitimate use of force by police and other security or peacekeeping forces. The National Security Strategy and QDDR can help to promote more effective modes of conflict management by showing how the legitimate use of force can support efforts at political institution-building, civil society development, and public dialogue to improve conditions in places like Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Burma -- and how the United States can help to support such efforts.

Finally, Americans must recognize that withdrawing from the world is not a viable option. Turning the nation's back on resurgent violence will not make it go away. The consequences of violence will harm America too, in myriad ways, despite the natural protection of two oceans. The country's economy, security, and health are intricately intertwined with the rest of the world. Its self-image as a moral nation, not just one that protects its own interests, cannot withstand rigid isolationism. The National Security Strategy and QDDR can articulate, with clarity and vision, why global engagement is essential if America wants to be the strong and prosperous force for good in the world it imagines itself to be.

JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

When 9,800 Doesn't Equal 9,800

The dirty secret about Obama’s Afghan plan is that tens of thousands of American civilians will be on the ground long after the troops have left.

News coverage of President Obama's speech at West Point Wednesday focused on one seemingly hard and fast statement: The United States will keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan next year, ensuring that the nation's longest war continues a little longer. The 9,800 troop figure has been repeated so often, and in so many places, that it actually obscures a key point: An invisible army of American diplomats, intelligence personnel, civilian government officials, and contractors will remain in Afghanistan well in the future, likely outnumbering the 9,800 troops that will be there next year and the smaller numbers of troops that will be there in the years to come.

The size, scope, composition, and duration of that civilian mission to Afghanistan will hinge on the way the Obama administration answers four questions: (1) what does Washington plan to do in Afghanistan; (2) how will the White House divide those missions among military, civilian, and contractor personnel; (3) what level of risk should the United States be willing to accept for our missions and our personnel; and (4) how much will Washington rely on allies, both Afghan and international, to shoulder the burden going forward. Depending on how the administration answers those questions, and what mixture of civilians and contractors it chooses to field, the U.S. civilian presence in Afghanistan could grow to be two or three times as large as the military mission there -- or more.

In his remarks yesterday in the Rose Garden, and today at West Point, President Obama outlined "two narrow missions" for U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014: "training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda." What remains less clear is the extent to which the United States will continue its multibillion-dollar reconstruction and development program under the auspices of USAID and other civilian agencies, as well as how the United States will continue support private sector and international efforts to develop Afghanistan, if at all.

The U.S. diplomatic presence in Kabul has mushroomed to include nearly 300 foreign service officers -- still smaller than the massive U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, but large by State Department standards. These diplomats work alongside scores more from USAID, the Justice Department, the Department of Agriculture, and other civilian agencies, as well as civilian contractors, short-term government employees, and workers from nongovernmental organizations. Alongside these personnel, a clandestine force reportedly including hundreds of personnel from the CIA and other agencies also serves in Afghanistan. The embassy will need at least this many personnel to do its job as the locus of leadership in Afghanistan passes from the military's headquarters to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. And if the United States chooses to continue its massive Afghan development program, this supersized diplomatic footprint will likely include scores or hundreds of personnel across the Afghan countryside as well, responsible for oversight of the billions of dollars in projects the United States is funding there (an alarmingly large amount of which has, over the years, been lost to corruption or mismanagement).

And therein lies the crux of the second and third questions: Who will do these missions, and how much risk will we be willing to accept in accomplishing them? U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham recently said there's "no way" his civilians from State and other agencies could continue the fieldwork they do in the absence of U.S. military support. He's right, to a point. No troops equals no forward operating bases to work from, no ground troops to provide convoy security, and no medevac helicopters to call on when casualties occur.

However, U.S. officials have floated at least two plausible options for continuing the countrywide diplomacy and development mission in Afghanistan.

The first is to contract for a sizable security and movement support network, similar to what was contemplated for the U.S. mission in Iraq after our troops left there in 2010. To safely move U.S. personnel around Afghanistan without military support would require hundreds or thousands of civilian contractors with their own air support, ground vehicles, supply lines, and communications networks. By the Pentagon's latest count, there are 61,452 contractor personnel supporting the Defense Department in Afghanistan, including 20,865 civilians. (This is down from 113,491 near the height of the Afghan war in January 2012.) These figures represent the current contractor support network for U.S. military forces, at a ratio of roughly two contractors for every U.S. service member. After the military withdrawal, our diplomatic footprint will likely rely even more on contractors than the military, because the State Department and other civilian agencies don't have the same logistics, communications, and security force structure as the military. A diplomatic mission of 1,000 to 2,000 could require as many as three to five times its number in support contractors, depending on the extent of its movements around the country and the amount of security risk it wants to take in Afghanistan. (Today, more than 5,000 contractors support the U.S. diplomatic mission in Iraq.)

Although contractors represent the State Department's preferred option for security in places like Afghanistan, this option won't come cheap, nor without some potential problems. In the post-Benghazi environment, it's not clear the United States will be willing to accept the inherent risk of manning smaller diplomatic outposts or sending civilian personnel to project sites around the country, especially facing a heavily armed and sophisticated adversary like the Taliban. And even if the United States chose to hire private contractors to effectively supplant the military, it's not clear it could work because the Afghan government has increasingly clamped down on private security contractors, directing that all operate under Afghan law and work in concert with an Afghan guard force called the Afghan Public Protection Force. Contractors enjoy a somewhat murky status under Afghan law, protected to some extent by the 2003 diplomatic agreements between the United States and Afghanistan, but with somewhat less protection under the draft Bilateral Security Agreement now under consideration.

The second option is to rely increasingly on a mixture of remote-observation technology and Afghan employees to be the eyes and ears of the U.S. mission outside the walls of the diplomatic fortress in Kabul. Although this minimizes risk to U.S. personnel, it asks a great deal of the Afghans who will instead monitor and evaluate U.S. projects around the country, putting many in the cross-hairs of the Taliban and other armed factions who will have the ability to influence, intimidate, and block their activities with near impunity after our troops depart.

Which leads to the fourth and final question: If the United States no longer runs these missions with military personnel, and decides not to do them with U.S. civilian personnel, can the United States rely instead on its allies to carry the torch? It's unclear that our allies will be willing to invest the billions or tens of billions of dollars necessary to continue large infrastructure projects throughout Afghanistan, pay the costs of running the country's impoverished central government, or pick up the tab for Afghanistan's growing security forces. And even if they do sign on, they don't have the forces in Afghanistan (if at all) to secure the countryside and oversee the massive and corruption-ridden Afghan development program. Which means that European governments will have to answer the same questions facing the Obama administration -- except that their risk tolerance is far lower than ours. Allied willingness to soldier on with Afghan reconstruction will depend largely on the security environment in Afghanistan, and is not within our control. If it wants continued Western help, the post-Karzai government of Afghanistan must create a secure environment for the country, relying on a mixture of Afghan security forces, economic incentives, and negotiated political bargains with adversaries such as the Taliban. It's far from clear, to put it very generously, that the Afghan government will be up to its share of the task, or that our allies will be willing to persevere in such an uncertain and risky situation.

For 13 years, our troops have largely led the effort in Afghanistan, shouldering the bulk of the burden and the majority of the casualties as well. The president's announcements this week signal an end to U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, but leave many unanswered questions about the extent of our total involvement there, and the size of the civilian mission that will remain after the last combat troops come home. The White House has to make a decision about the diplomats and other civilians it has stationed in Afghanistan: whether to go big, go small, or go home. How the White House answers those questions will dictate the shape of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan long after the now-famous 9,800 troops come home.

Scott Olson/Getty Images